Saturday, February 26, 2022

Red Letter Poem #99

 The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                          – Steven Ratiner




Red Letter Poem #99



Perhaps our young minds eventually embrace grammar so that thoughts will maintain their integrity, respect boundaries.  And perhaps time, as a concept, comes into being so that the flood of perception can be mastered, channeled, and savored measure by measure.  Yet don’t we all have some vague impression of an early circumstance when that was not the case – when the territories of the body and the world comprised one sovereign frontier; and a sense of was/is/will be swirled around us in waves?  To an infant, each morning brings a constantly-surprising storm of the senses, both thrilling and terrifying – though, at the time, it was simply an immersion in the day.  And this experience came to us bearing no title nor sense of ownership – that is, until we began to recognize the one our mothers and fathers were attaching to it; and then we embraced those syllables as our given names.  Here, in this a brand-new poem from the acclaimed writer Richard Blanco, we are presented with a taste of that childhood domain even as, stanza by stanza, we gradually become aware of those crucial distinctions by which we navigate: who and what we are (and are not); and what must transpire during these moments to make us aware that love is underpinning it all.


Richard’s Cuban family emigrated to Spain where he was born but, soon after, resettled in Miami, Florida where he would spend his formative years.  His memoir, The Prince of los Cocuyos (Ecco Press, 2014), offers a compelling account of his childhood and adolescence as he came to terms with his cultural and sexual identities and began to find his voice as a poet.  His first collection, City of a Hundred Fires (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998), received numerous honors including the Agnes Lynch Starrett National Poetry Prize.  The books that followed were equally lauded, including: Directions to the Beach of the Dead (University of Arizona Press) which won the 2006 PEN/American Center Beyond Margins Award; and Looking for The Gulf Motel, a recipient of both the Paterson Poetry Prize and the Thom Gunn Award.  In 2019, Beacon press brought out his most recent collection How to Love a Country.  Though he’d long been gathering a following, for many readers Richard’s work first entered their awareness on January 21st, 2013 when he stood on the steps of the Capitol in Washington D.C. as the Inaugural Poet for President Barak Obama’s second term – breaking barriers as the first immigrant, Latinx, and openly-gay person to receive such an honor.  But it pleases me to say that Richard has used the prominence which came from that experience as a platform, not to advance his career, but to advocate for freedom of expression, and to open poetry up to diverse and underserved audiences.  Having taught at many colleges, he is currently an Associate Professor at Florida International University; and he also carries the distinction of being the first Education Ambassador for the Academy of American Poets.


In “The Splintering”, the poet reinhabits a boyhood moment when pain and love helped define something essential in his being.  I won’t be surprised if you also remember, as I did, certain youthful adventures where life might have gone horribly awry – if not for the devotion of some dear protector.  I hope one day, some enterprising anthologist will pair Richard’s poem with Li-Young Lee's "The Gift", a piece about his father extracting a metal splinter from his hand, soothed only by the sound of his parent’s story-telling voice.  Taken together, they form a marvelous tribute to mothers and fathers, and the sort of love whose imprint our lives still bear.  Perhaps, reading Richard’s poem – when his succession of couplets splinters at the end, and we suddenly reawaken within our own familiar worlds – we’ll find ourselves in the presence of some of the faces that safeguarded our perilous journeys: those close at hand and others unimaginably far.





The Splintering



As a boy I was all body, my body part of all

that was. My ears were the wind my cheeks


heard. My mouth the thunder that roared in

my chest. My face in the face of rain puddles


cupped in my palms. My lips the wet petals

my nose kissed. And I blindly saw the stars


as my eyes luring me that night to climb up

our backyard mango tree, its branches were


my fingers, its splinters mine, needling into

my skin that was its bark. I fell, and fell hard


into the cries of my mother’s terror: Dios mio!

I couldn’t grasp her urgency: why she had to


tenderly soak my hands, as if I was some hurt

animal she had to heal, why the hours spent


pulling out every splinter with her tweezers,

a surgeon operating on me in her housecoat


and terrycloth slippers, why her teary words,

It’s okay. Just a few more. You could’ve died.


Die? I knew nothing of dying. Then she kissed

the last bead of blood on my finger, and said:


I love you. Meaning what she’d love forever

was more than my body, which suddenly split


from me into abstract breaths in the mouth

of my mind, for the first time saying to itself:


Death, joy, loss.  Saying: I love you too, mom.



                              ­­–– Richard Blanco





The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)   

At the outset of the Covid pandemic, when fear was at its highest, the Red Letter Project was intended to remind us of community: that, even isolated in our homes, we could still face this challenge together.  As Arlington’s Poet Laureate, I began sending out a poem of comfort each Friday, featuring the fine talents from our town and its neighbors.  Because I enlisted the partnership of seven local arts and community organizations, distribution of the poems spread quickly – and, with subscribers sharing and re-posting the installments, soon we had readers, not only throughout the Commonwealth, but across the country.  And I delighted in the weekly e-mails I’d receive with praise for the poets; as one reader recently commented: “You give me the gift of a quiet, contemplative break—with something to take away and reflect on.”


Then our circumstance changed dramatically again: following the murder of George Floyd, the massive social and political unrest, and the national economic catastrophe, the distress of the pandemic was magnified.  Red Letter 2.0 announced that I would seek out as diverse a set of voices as I could find – from Massachusetts and beyond – so that their poems might inspire, challenge, deepen the conversation we were, by necessity, engaged in.


Now, with widespread vaccination, an economic rebound, and a shift in the political landscape, I intend to help this forum continue to evolve – Red Letter 3.0.  For the last 15 months, I’ve heard one question again and again: when will we get back our old lives?  It may pain us to admit it, but that is little more than a fantasy.  Our lives have been altered irrevocably – not only our understanding of how thoroughly interdependent we are, both locally and globally, but how fragile and utterly precious is all that we love.  Weren’t you bowled over recently by how good it felt just to hug a friend or family member?  Or to walk unmasked through a grocery, noticing all the faces?  So I think the question we must wrestle with is this: knowing what we know, how will we begin shaping our new life?  Will we quickly forget how grateful we felt that strangers put themselves at risk, every day, so that we might purchase milk and bread, ride the bus to work, or be cared for by a doctor or nurse?  Will we slip back into our old drowse and look away from the pain so many are forced to endure – in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet?  Will we stop noticing those simple beauties all around us?  The poet Mary Oliver said it plainly: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  I will continue to offer RLP readers the work of poets who are engaged in these questions, hoping their voices will fortify all of ours.


Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog (, and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene (  If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to: